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November 29, 2005

Transamerica squanders potential on misplaced jokes

I desperately wanted to like Transamerica, a highlight of Reeling 2005: The 24th Chicago Lesbian and Gay International Film Festival, which opens in New York and L.A. on December 2. But after spending a substantial amount of time thinking about it (I saw it over a month ago), I realized how hollow the story was, and exactly why I didn’t sympathize with Bree (Felicity Huffman), the main character.

I was recently informed that one does not actually need to have had a sex-change operation to be considered transsexual. Indeed, as a recent visitor to my Biology of Gender course informed me, transsexuality is based solely on a person’s feelings that he or she should have been born the opposite sex. Medical restrictions, however, require that a person have these feelings for approximately two years before she or he can be considered transsexual. Then there is a requirement to undergo therapy with a psychiatrist if a sex change is desired.

Transamerica introduces us to Bree, formerly Stanley, a male-to-female transsexual whose one desire is to undergo the operation and start her life anew. The only complication is Bree’s discovery that she fathered a son, Toby (Kevin Zegers), a 17-year-old prostitute living in Kansas with his sexually abusive stepfather and the memories of a mother who committed suicide. Bree discovers Toby in New York while bailing him out of jail. She pretends to be a missionary from the Church of the Potential Fathers. Bree and Toby embark on a journey in a car across the U.S. to Los Angeles. There, Bree hopes to have her sex change operation, and Toby hopes to become a porn star.

Even this early, the film possesses the believability of a Saturday morning special. The film strives to be more humorous than dramatic. One early moment, when Bree is trying to get her doctor to sign papers that will allow her to undergo electrolysis, is extremely funny. The doctor asks Bree, “How do you feel abut your penis?” She answers, “It disgusts me.” The doctor goes on, “And your friends?” Bree: “Oh, they don’t like it either.” Obviously the doctor wasn’t referring to her friends’ views on Bree’s penis, but the movie does a rather exhaustive job of regurgitating that same kind of dry humor throughout the film.

Bree and Toby encounter a host of situations that complicate their trip, but one moment had the potential to be very tender and sweet. Bree and Toby camp in the woods one night, at Toby’s request. In the middle of the night, by a homemade fire, Bree asks Toby, “What do you see your life like in ten years?” The moment is so unfortunately shortchanged that it seems completely out of place and adds very little to the film. We never get that kind of moment again.

I sympathized with Toby more than Bree for much of the film. Toby is played with regular teenage angst, but possesses the right amount of naïveté to make the character worth the engagement. We learn many things about him—in particular, that he does a lot of drugs and doesn’t really care what others say about it. He does what he has to do for money, and as much as that may break our hearts as spectators, we know that he has very few alternative options.

However, I did admire the strength of Felicity Huffman’s performance as Bree. I wasn’t expecting the film to go the comedic route and was a bit thrown off by that element, but I thought Huffman turned in an award-worthy performance. In Huffman’s performance, I could see, underneath all of the dry humor, a deeply emotionally affected man. His life has been turned upside down. Indeed, his only goal is to be a woman—to get rid of “Stanley.” Unfortunately, I don’t believe an operation that alters only physical appearance is enough to fully change a person and make him or her happy. But that’s probably a discussion for another place and time.

Does Bree undergo the sex change? Yes. But revealing that fact doesn’t spoil the film. Indeed Transamerica’s protagonist is a transsexual, but the film is not about transsexuality. It is not concerned with the sex operation so much as with a man who happens to be a transsexual, discovers she has a kid, and must travel leaps and bounds to end up with a better sense of her worth.

The film stupidly presents caricatures of Bree’s parents and a psychiatrist that seems to only show up when she isn’t needed (and doesn’t seem to notice the bruise on Bree’s face when she shows up for her operation). Still, the film allows the psychiatrist to say one of the most important lines of the film: “I don’t want you to go through with this metamorphosis only to find that you are still incomplete.” I wish the film had engaged with this statement more faithfully.

I am still recommending Transamerica, despite my frustration. If nothing else, the film is daring in its willingness to present an unconventional and (perhaps for some) unpleasant subject matter. It is a step in the right direction regarding what film can and should do. The filmmakers didn’t get it right with Transamerica, but at least they tried. I wanted a more human story, not without the humor, but with more of an investment in its cause.